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Honesty in Numbers: Honest Tea's Social Experiment Puts Honor System to the Test

By:  Jay Moye Jul 29, 2013
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Man on bike at Honest Tea stand

Unmanned kiosks across the country offered bottles of Honest Tea for $1 to see how honest Americans are.

In 2009, two Honest Tea field marketers were handing out product samples at a public square in San Francisco when their cooler ran out of ice.

They quickly scribbled a note that read: “Please don’t touch…we’ll be back,” then watched from across the street as passers-by plucked bottle after bottle – emptying the cooler in about 15 minutes.

The outcome inspired a lighthearted, yet revealing, social experiment that has evolved over the last five years to explore just how honest people truly are when they think no one is looking.

Honest Tea stand

Walking the Talk: Honest Tea's Seth Goldman deposits a dollar in Washington, D.C.

Earlier this month, Honest Tea traveled more than 21,000 miles to all 50 states and Washington, D.C., setting up unattended kiosks in 61 locations. The pop-up booths offered bottles of Honest Tea for $1 apiece on the honor system. Using a custom mobile app, they recorded who paid and who stole over the course of 10 days, then dissected the data by state, gender, hair color, hair length, facial hair and more to compile the National Honesty Index.

“This was the first time we’ve conducted the experiment on a national scale – which is quite an undertaking for a company like ours,” said Seth Goldman, Honest Tea co-founder and “TeaEO”, who said the project is a great fit for the brand. “We have this honest and transparent connection with our ingredients, so creating an activation that challenges consumers to think about those same values in the way they live makes sense.”

As it turns out, most Americans are pretty honest: 92% of the 11,000 participants, in fact. Alabama and Hawaii were the most honest states, with 100% of participants paying for their drinks.

“It’s refreshing,” Goldman said of the findings. “Because based on what you hear and read, there appears to be a lot of distrust in the country. And there shouldn’t be, because we found that, overall, people are more honest than we give them credit for… and that’s a positive story.”

The results revealed women were more honest than men (95% to 91%), blondes were more honest than brunettes or redheads, and people in groups were more honest than individuals.

The experiment yielded its share of amusing anecdotes, some more honest than others – from the guy in South Carolina who didn’t pay for a bottle but felt guilty and later mailed Honest Tea $2 (all proceeds collected during the experiment will be donated to FoodCorps, a nonprofit that helps kids eat healthy), to a Maine man who paid for two bottles with a winning lottery ticket for $2. Meanwhile, a suit-clad businessman in Boston took 13 bottles over the course of a day without surrendering a single dollar, and a brazen passer-by in West Virginia even tried to walk off with the money box.

Goldman has a story of his own to tell from the day of the Washington, D.C. experiment. He locked up his bike outside the Metro station in Honest Tea’s hometown of Bethesda, Md. before hopping the train to DuPont Circle. When he returned, it was gone.

“It’s a good lesson and cautionary tale that while 92 percent of people around the country are honest, there are still some folks out there who are not,” he said with a laugh.

The complete findings – including a state-by-state breakdown – are available at www.NationalHonestyIndex.com. Visitors can use the data to compare the honesty of certain attributes – gender, hair color, hair length, etc. – vs. those of friends, spouses or colleagues, and share their profiles on Facebook or Twitter.